Eleven years after the destruction of Hurricane Katrina, which is considered to be the costliest natural disaster in U.S. history, the city of New Orleans now is poised to become a model of urban water management for the world.
During a seminar held Sept. 8 at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) headquarters, award-winning architect J. David Waggonner III outlined the “Greater New Orleans Urban Water Plan,” a holistic approach to integrated stormwater management with the potential to save city taxpayers almost $8 billion in flood damage cleanup costs during the next 50 years.
The address, the latest in a speaker series hosted by the EPA Office of Water Technology, Innovation, and Sustainability, focused on a need to change public perception of stormwater from a nuisance to a resource. To affect the opinions of taxpayers, Waggonner argues, flood mitigation projects need to be accessible, attractive, and affordable.
“There are basic human urges to see water, to touch water, to live alongside water. It’s important that new water infrastructure is visible,” Waggonner said, noting that many of the city’s pre-existing, publicly funded systems are off-limits to residents. “People need to see it, they need to want it, and they have to want to pay for it.”
The Urban Water Plan proposes the creation of seven green infrastructure-inspired projects in three parishes, which are similar to counties, around New Orleans. The cost to implement the plan is estimated to be $5 billion to $6 billion but is estimated to provide more than $20 billion in benefits to the city through job growth, flooding abatement, reduction in subsidence-related damages, and increased property values. Projects are intended to retain a portion of stormwater for reuse, to lessen risks of severe flooding, and to beautify the city while inspiring community engagement.
While each part of the plan identifies possible financing strategies that include both public and private sources, Waggonner recognizes the challenges of funding and securing available surface land area for his proposals. Because New Orleans has a low population density compared to other U.S. cities, Waggonner argues that the funding burden cannot fall on taxpayers alone.
“It’s an illusion to think that all this work can be done from the ground up. [Government agencies] need to step up and do more,” Waggonner said. “Public funding must be used for public investments in a way people can appreciate.”
As president of Waggonner & Ball Architects (New Orleans), Waggonner has worked with local and international experts to help rebrand New Orleans as an emerging authority on water systems engineering. The company’s outreach efforts include the 2012 creation of the Ripple Effect Water Literacy Program, which introduces New Orleans students to the concepts of green infrastructure, flood mitigation, and subsidence using the Urban Water Plan as a textbook and the city as a hands-on classroom.
The EPA Office of Water Technology, Innovation, and Sustainability speaker series is sponsored in part by the Water Environment Federation (Alexandria, Va.), the Water Environment & Reuse Foundation (Alexandria, Va.), and the National Association of Clean Water Agencies (Washington, D.C.). Read about a previous presentation in this series in the WEF Highlights article, “Rethinking Water Infrastructure.”
— Justin Jacques, WEF Highlights